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TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Dec17/04)
5 December 2017
Third World Network


Ever changing narrative in Argentina ban of NGOs for MC11
Published in SUNS #8589 dated 5 December 2017

Geneva, 4 Dec (Chakravarthi Raghavan*) - The narrative and official explanations advanced by the organs of the Government of Argentina, the host for the World Trade Organisation's MC11, for banning of some 60-odd individuals from 20 non-governmental organisations accredited to the Conference by the WTO has been getting curiouser and curiouser, making a mockery of "national security" claims based on which the bans have been imposed.

A large number or majority of the organisations and individuals are part of the global civil society network grouped under OWINFS (Our World Is Not For Sale), whose coordinator Deborah James had addressed a letter to the WTO DG and WTO members last week calling on them to shift the MC11 venue, if Argentina does not change its mind (see SUNS #8588 dated 4 December 2017).

On Monday, James sent a follow-up letter to WTO DG Mr. Roberto Azevedo, reminding him that they had received no response, pointing out that the Argentine action was a violation of the host country agreement and norms.

Ms. James urged the DG to take steps "to immediately correct this situation, intervene with the government of Argentina to reverse its decision; and if the government maintains its violation of the host country agreement, to bring this issue immediately to the General Council and reschedule the (MC11) meeting when a proper host can be found." (More on this below).

While apparently for nearly two weeks before 29 November (when the WTO began notifying individual affected members), there had been considerable back-and-forth between the WTO in Geneva and the Argentine authorities in Buenos Aires, the information about the ban became more widely known when the WTO NGO liaison official began notifying individuals affected about the ban, repeatedly insisting that though the WTO had accredited them, it was the host government, for "unspecified reasons" that was denying accreditation, and the WTO had been unable to get any explanation nor did it have any hope it will be reversed.

The WTO warned the affected individuals not to travel as they were bound to be stopped at immigration by Argentine authorities and deported back. (See Chakravarthi Raghavan in SUNS #8587 dated 1 December 2017, "PR disaster for MC11, as host denies accreditation to many NGOs").

While the WTO was thus advising and notifying affected NGOs, the Argentine government itself kept silent and neither contacted the persons concerned nor made any public announcement.

In an article in its issue of 3 December, an Argentine daily, Pagina 12, spoke of the "unusual decision of the Argentine government to censor the participation of entities and people accredited to the next WTO Ministerial Conference", and said the details made it "closer to a scandal" and an attempt to censor participation of individuals, based on an assessment of their views.

Pagina 12 cited the text of the diplomatic cable of the Foreign Ministry orders to its embassies and consulates throughout the world, to deny visas to representatives of civil society organizations whose stance to the WTO and MC11 were viewed by the foreign office as "more disruptive than constructive".

Whatever the merits of this subjective assessment, it clearly was not a criterion that could fall under the "national security" exception provision of the standard headquarters agreement for such conferences between the UN (in this case the WTO) and the host government.

The reasons advanced by the host government produced an outrage, not only among affected individuals and their organizations, but several of the governments of Europe, where the NGOs are located.

Many of these individuals are academic researchers in good standing, whose papers are often even published or taken note of by these governments.

Several of them apparently instructed their embassies in Buenos Aires to take it up with the host country, and the embassies of EU nations reportedly met jointly with the local Foreign Office officials.

(One of the Argentine NGOs banned from the conference is a respected research group on labour, and some of their writings and papers have been published, and/or made use of by the Argentine Labour Ministry!)

These discussions between local EU envoys and the Argentine Foreign Office perhaps forced the host government to realise the untenability of its position. Over the weekend, the narrative (and reasons advanced for the ban) changed.

In a press note issued by the Foreign Ministry, dated 2 December, but made public on 3 December, the justification was changed.

Instead of advancing the earlier claim of "disruptive" nature of the individuals and/or organisations, it was now claimed that the dis-accredited organisations (including the Argentine Federation of the Spirit Drinks Industry, the International Maize Alliance, Oxfam Germany, the Americas office of UNI, the global umbrella trade union for private sector services, 11.11.11, the umbrella NGO of Belgian development NGOs etc) had made explicit calls for violence on social media.

The key paragraph in the press note said: "The team organizing security for this conference alerted the WTO about some individuals registered by the WTO under some NGOs who had made explicit calls for violence on social media, expressing their tendency to produce schemes of intimidation and chaos."

One Argentine NGO (name withheld by SUNS, lest it be banned too) said: "to the best of my knowledge, that is a false imputation of criminal behaviour and falls under the qualification of libel (§109 of Argentine Criminal Code, aggravated by being committed by a public official, idem §117 bis).

The NGO also noted, and drew attention to some weird things in the release:

The language was somewhat unusual for Ministry of Foreign Affairs documents, containing several style and grammar errors that shouldn't be expected from a press editor/spokesperson.

For e.g.

* in Spanish the months' names are "never" capitalized (but it was in the release).

* "11va" used in the release, is the wrong abbreviation for eleventh (undecima, decimo primera or oncena in Spanish) Ministerial Conference. It should have been 11ª (superscript small "a")  or 11a.

* there were long, breathless paragraphs made of just one sentence.

* the usage of "y/o" (and/or), may be typical of "police baroque", but impermissible in learned Spanish unless intended to specifically prevent an ambiguity.

* there were incorrect placement of commas.

* there was confusing wording (not as in "deliberately ambiguous", but as if written by someone halfway in the middle school).

* full of grammatical mistakes.

The press release said that on the occasion of MC11 of the WTO soon to be held in Buenos Aires, several precautions have been taken on organisational matters, including issues related to the accreditation of attendees.

The Security team of the organisation of this Ministerial Conference anticipated to the WTO the existence of some enrolled attendees, registered by that Organisation [the WTO] on behalf of some NGOs, who had made explicit calls to manifestations of violence through social networks, expressing their will to generate schemes of intimidation and chaos.

Based on the qualification of such records, the local organisation has understood it opportune to indicate that the people associated with such disruptive and/or violent proposals could not be accredited to access the Ministerial Conference meeting venue.

In this context it should be remembered that the organisation of the Conference has already accredited 213 NGOs for the Buenos Aires event, which make up a core of 593 people, while only 60 registered by 18 NGOs have not been [accredited].

The number of accredited [individuals? NGOs?] doubles the quantity of those participating in the last four Ministerial Conferences."

[Lest it be accused of distortion, SUNS has cited translations, provided by a local NGO, from original Spanish into English of the relevant paras in full].

The list of dis-accredited organisations (in the foreign office cable, accessed and published by pagina 12) is extensive: Access Now, Attac France, Attac Norway, Coalition of the Flemish North-South Movement, Digital Rights, Positive Effect Group Foundation, Global Justice Now, World of Work Institute, J. Godio-Untref, Lifelong Education & Development, Oxfam Germany, Rede Brasileira pela Integracao dos Povos, UNI Americas, Argentine Federation of the Spirit Drinks Industry, People Over Profit, Siemenpuu, Society of Critical Economics, the International Maize Alliance, Transnational Institute, Friends of the Earth International, UNI Global Union Indonesia, The Redemption Health Foundation for Sustainable Rural Development and Conservation.

Some of these organisations, and the persons mentioned, are known to this writer over many years, and none of them fit into the descriptions mentioned by intelligence services of the host country.

Initially, civil society groups felt the WTO had made sincere efforts to enable the individuals to be at Buenos Aires. But after the official government narrations, and further inquiries, several NGOs felt that the WTO has some explaining to do.

They note the claim of Argentina, that thanks to its sophisticated intelligence, it has discovered a plot to disrupt a major high level international meeting.

And, since it is its duty to protect its national security, it has asked all its consulates not to issue visas to said dangerous elements and inform the capital if they do try to get their visas (and, presumably, of any other relevant information if they do not need visas, as is the case of most of them). The whole operation is kept secret, by the government.

The WTO secretariat, these NGOs said, has somehow obtained the secret list of suspects and has checked that they are indeed a threat to Argentine security.

If that was not the case, these CSOs argue, the host country would be in violation of the host country agreement by denying entry to people whose presence the WTO had previously judged as beneficial for the conference, and subsequently accredited them officially.

If the people in the list were not a threat to Argentine security and the list had been constructed for other reasons, like, for example, a judgement of the views of the banned persons and organizations, Argentina would be exerting an undue pressure on the Ministerial Conference, by choosing to censor some views and favour others (those accredited and accepted).

Since those censored views would be related to the issues being discussed at the conference, and might be in coincidence of other parties' views, the presumption of good faith on which all diplomatic agreements are based would be distorted.

Lack of good faith by the country that not only hosts the conference but chairs its proceedings, added to a violation of the host country agreement, would be two serious offences that the WTO Director-General should have brought to the attention of the General Council, maybe with a suggestion to delay the conference until a proper host could be found or, alternatively, host it in Geneva.

However, nothing of that kind would be required if the WTO agrees with the view of Argentina that its national security is under threat.

The WTO seems to have accepted the host country arguments, as evidenced by its not mentioning the violation of the host country agreement or the undue preference of some parties' opinions over others.

But it proceeds to inform the "culprits" of the threats to Argentine national security that they have been detected and spends time and resources to save them the expenses of travel and other inconveniences they could face at the border, all of them related to their known threats to national security of a member state.

"This is the real scandal," the groups argued. The WTO, they said, has some explaining to do and it cannot pretend it was not an active participant in this whole incident.

Among some of the local NGOs and journalists, the ban and the manner in which it has been done, and references to the Argentine intelligence services, have resulted in their digging up and drawing attention of colleagues outside and those planning to attend MC11, to some past unsavoury episodes and allegations linking President Mauricio Macri.

In the OWINFS follow-up letter to WTO DG, Mr. Roberto Azevedo, Ms James has reminded him of their earlier letter to which they had received no response.

Bringing some additional facts on the predicament of OWINFS members affected, she added: "We fully understand that in the case of the banned civil society representatives, that they had been duly accredited by the WTO, and that the decision to revoke the accreditation lies with the Argentine government.

We also understand that the WTO pushed back on the blacklisting, and that you have engaged the government to try to convince them to reverse their position. We appreciate this.

"However, at this point, we find that not enough action has been taken by the WTO to guarantee the proper functioning of the Ministerial. As we stated in our letter, "if any host country starts limiting access and does so arbitrarily and without having to explain any motives, not only is this conference's integrity being attacked, but a key principle of international diplomacy is being violated."

"The banning of registered WTO delegates is an outrageous and worrying precedent, not just for the WTO meeting itself, and also for the G20 presidency of Argentina, but also for all future international meetings."

The Argentine government's only public explanation has been that they found that the targeted organizations were "more disruptive than constructive," which, not only is incorrect, but does not fall within the international norms or host country agreement for refusing accredited participants.

And today, we find posted on the website of the Foreign Ministry, a statement accusing the listed organizations of having "hecho explicitos llamamientos a manifestaciones de violencia a traves de las redes sociales, expresando su vocacion de generar esquemas de intimidacion y caos."

This, Ms James said, "is outrageous libel. It is impossible to justify that organizations such as the Instituto del Mundo del Trabajo or REBRIP or UNI Americas or CNCD-11.11.11 (an umbrella organization with 90 members including Caritas, Oxfam, Medecins du Monde, Rotary Club for Development, Conseil de la Jeunesse Catholique, etcetera) are "disruptive" or "violent."

None of the organizations we know have expressed calls to violence on social media. If the Argentine government is using this claim as its justification, it should be required by the WTO to offer proof (which of course does not exist.)

We have understood through various channels that the Argentine government may be reviewing groups on a "case by case" basis, asking the home governments of the respective organizations for verification.

This may be helpful for some groups, because some of the targeted organizations are funded partially by their governments, such as Siemenpuu (Finland) or Transnational Institute (the Netherlands); another aspect which makes the accusations against them laughable.

However, we find that the requirement that a government verify (non-governmental) organizations to participate, to be repugnant.

While not every banned group is known to us, we demand that ALL organizations which are accredited to the WTO, are duly allowed to participate in the meeting.

In all of our organizations' and allies' experience with international meetings of multilateral member-state organizations, none of us have ever witnessed such a wholesale, and meritless, banning of accredited organizations from an international meeting.

We find only one related situation was in 2006 at the World Bank-IMF annual meeting in Singapore, 27 civil society delegates accredited to the official meeting and dozen others that wanted to attend the parallel meeting were denied entry in Singapore.

Under pressure from the civil society community, then-President of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz, and then-Managing Director of the IMF, Rodrigo Rato, declared publicly that the Singaporean government had "shot itself on the foot," and met with the Prime Minister to request that all those granted accreditation be admitted, in accordance with standard diplomatic practice for governments hosting international meetings. Because they took public leadership regarding the meeting of their organizations, 22 of the 27 were allowed in.

Since officially accredited civil society groups are an integral part of the conference itself, the host country is bound by the host country agreement to let them in.

A violation of the terms of the host country agreement that deprives the conference of duly accredited participants should not be acceptable by the international organization (the WTO in this case) and if a single legitimate participant is not allowed entry this should be a reason to move the conference to another location.

This should be done in defense of the integrity of not just of your organization but any other multilateral member-state conference, where the host country cannot block delegates that it doesn't like.

Since the people in the list are not a threat to Argentine security, then the list has been constructed for other reasons, like, for example, a judgement of the banned persons and organizations' views.

This seems like a far more credible underlying reason, given that half of the blacklisted groups are members of the OWINFS network and many others are well known to us. At the same time, the government of Argentina is hosting the International Chamber of Commerce for a joint trade fair.

Given that only two of the blacklisted groups are trade associations, that means that other companies such as DHL, UPS, Fedex, the Global Express Association, the International Chamber of Commerce, the World Economic Forum, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, Philip Morris, the European Services Forum, the Semiconductor Industry Association, etcetera have not had their accreditation denied by the Argentine government and will be able to advocate for their views during the meeting.

Thus, Argentina is exerting an undue pressure on the Ministerial Conference, by choosing to censor some views and favour others (those accredited and accepted).

Since those censored views would be related to the issues being discussed at the conference, and might coincide with some parties' positions, the presumption of good faith on which all diplomatic agreements are based would be distorted, and thus the outcome of the conference would be distorted and thus lack legitimacy.

Specifically, many of the banned organizations support the policy proposals of developing countries, in favour of the G90 proposals on development and the G33 proposals on public stockholding, while opposing proposals that are intended to benefit the (permitted) corporations named above, such as on e-commerce, investment facilitation, and domestic regulation.

Lack of good faith and attempt to distort the conference outcome by the country that not only hosts the conference but chairs its proceedings, added to a violation of the host country agreement, are serious offences that the WTO Director-General should have brought to the attention of the General Council, with a request to delay the conference until a proper host could be found or, alternatively, host it in Geneva.

Since this was not done, it appears that the WTO agrees with the view of Argentina that its national security is under threat, and that the WTO does not oppose the distortion of the conference outcome.

We urge you to immediately correct this situation, and to intervene with the government to reverse its decision; and if the government maintains its violation of the host country agreement, to bring this issue immediately to the General Council and reschedule the meeting when a proper host can be found."

[* Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Editor Emeritus of the SUNS.]

 


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